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The Left Hand of Darkness | Study Guide

Ursula K. Le Guin

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The Left Hand of Darkness | Introduction | Summary



In her introduction Le Guin describes science fiction that includes what she calls extrapolation as an element—that is, the narrative exploration of the logical end of a current phenomenon. She argues that writers who merely carry out such an idea to its logical extreme produce depressing, overly simplistic stories that fail to satisfy the reader. In contrast, she suggests science fiction be approached as a "thought-experiment," in which variables are manipulated but manipulated in ways to describe present realities rather than to predict the future.

Le Guin argues that fiction writers "desire the truth ... But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way." Le Guin says science fiction writers differ from other fiction writers in their use of new metaphors, such as space travel and the future. According to Le Guin, "The truth is a matter of the imagination."


According to Le Guin, "Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive." The purpose of the genre, as she sees it, is to describe present realities. In 1969 "present realities" included civil unrest, questioning of social mores and of equality with regard to gender and race, and a growing distrust in the political establishment. Each of these "realities" emerges in The Left Hand of Darkness, with Le Guin prompting the reader to "Open your eyes; listen, listen." Le Guin does not tell the reader what to think but rather describes the nature of human beings as she saw them at that moment in human history.

Le Guin's claim that "truth is a matter of the imagination" suggests she views truth as relative rather than objective, constructed rather than found. The story's main character and narrator, Genly Ai, opens the novel with this very idea. The story is not his alone, but rather a collection of reports, myths, and journal entries. Readers, viewing the pieces through their own unique lens, construct the truth of the story by piecing the various components together to form a unified, very imaginative whole.

The story explores present realities concerning the ways in which someone's own cultural lens complicates communication, as well as perceptions of truth. In the book the invented term shifgrethor refers to the rules necessary for communication and understanding within a society. Ai struggles to understand these unwritten rules, and no one can explain them to him. Members of any society are generally oblivious to their own cultural lens until they encounter a culture with a different set of rules. Such "rules" are learned through membership in the group, though they are unwritten and rarely articulated. This parallels Le Guin's belief about the role of the novelist, who "says in words what cannot be said in words."

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